The Daily Telegraph

James Mcdivitt

Astronaut who set an endurance record in Gemini 4 and helped pave the way for the Moon landings

- James Mcdivitt, born June 10 1929, died October 13 2022

JAMES MCDIVITT, who has died aged 93, piloted the American spacecraft Gemini 4 in 1965 on a four-day mission that set a new endurance record for two-man space flight; he later commanded the Apollo 9

mission that helped to pave the way for the first Moon landings.

Launched in March 1969, Apollo 9

was Nasa’s most ambitious and dangerous space mission to date, a dress rehearsal for the lunar-module landing which would eventually put men on the Moon during the Apollo 11

mission four months later. It started falteringl­y, when Mcdivitt and his two fellow astronauts, David Scott and the civilian Russell “Rusty” Schweickar­t, all caught a virus, delaying lift-off for two days.

Of primary importance to the mission – and crucial to a manned Moon landing – was the performanc­e of the ungainly-looking lunar module, or LEM, which would act as a “space dinghy” to fly two astronauts from the mother ship to the moon and back. Although eight minutes behind schedule, the first docking of the mother ship and the LEM went according to plan.

“With a watchmaker’s precision,” reported The Daily Telegraph’s science correspond­ent, “Col Mcdivitt, 39, the mission commander, locked the two craft together, then separated the two from the main rocket.”

Once launched into Earth orbit, Mcdivitt and Schweickar­t flew the landing craft for five hours while Scott remained in the command module. Standing at the controls rather than seated, Mcdivitt and Schwieckar­t duplicated the delicate manoeuvres required of the LEM, including the rendezvous with Apollo, docking, and tests on the British-equipped spacesuits to be worn on the Moon.

Although Schwieckar­t’s planned space walk (or EVA, extra-vehicular activity) had to be abandoned because he was stricken with nausea, Mcdivitt was able to simulate a return from the Moon’s surface by jettisonin­g the lower descent assembly of the LEM before redocking.

During the seven-hour separation, which took the two craft 113 miles apart, the LEM’S rocket engines repeatedly performed, in the Telegraph’s phrase, “as precisely as any celestial choreograp­her could wish”. It was, the paper observed, nothing less than a “magnificen­t space ballet, the most complex ever performed”.

As they drew together again, Mcdivitt, at the controls of the LEM, used visual sightings along a gunsightty­pe device to close in on the command module at three inches per second, yelling jubilantly: “Whew! I haven’t felt so good in a long time.”

As well as testing a prototype of the lunar lander in Earth orbit, Apollo 9 conducted tests to see if a special four-barrel camera aboard the spacecraft could make a reliable survey of agricultur­al crops on Earth from more than 100 miles above the surface.

The mission ended 10 seconds late with a pinpoint splashdown in the Atlantic just a mile from its target. Even the Soviet news agency Tass was effusive in its praise. “One cannot fail to pay tribute to the courage and selflessne­ss of both American astronauts,” it conceded.

Curiously, while acknowledg­ing the total profession­alism of Mcdivitt and White, some US space bosses were left pondering the celebrity effect of such pioneering space missions, and the adulation they generated. An American newspaper quoted one Nasa engineer as saying: “We made them gods, and now we’re paying for it.”

Within days – and just a month before the historic flight of Apollo 11

– Mcdivitt resigned from the astronaut programme to head a new office at Nasa responsibl­e for planning moon landings.

The son of a power company executive, James Alton Mcdivitt was born on June 10 1929 in Chicago, and brought up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he attended the local high school and became an early fan of the comic-strip space traveller Buck Rogers.

After Jackson Junior College, in 1951 he enlisted in the US Air Force, qualified as a jet fighter pilot and flew 145 combat missions in Korea, for which he was much decorated.

In 1957, determined to join America’s manned space programme, Mcdivitt moved his family to Ann Arbor and enrolled at the University of Michigan engineerin­g school, sponsored by the USAF, graduating with straight A grades two years later.

Recruited by Nasa in 1962, when he was a captain, Mcdivitt was named as commander of Gemini 4 in March 1965, with Major Edward White as his co-pilot. During the mission White became the first American to walk in space when he spent 14 minutes floating above the Atlantic at the end of a 25ft gold-plated lifeline, armed with a colour film camera and a jet propulsion gun that allowed him to control his movements.

Another novel feature of the flight was that the two astronauts’ conversati­ons with their respective wives, following the mission from Nasa headquarte­rs at Houston, Texas, were broadcast to the world for the first time. As they swung over California, Mcdivitt exchanged pleasantri­es with his wife, Patricia.

“How are you?” Mcdivitt asked. “I’m fine,” his wife replied, “how are you?”

“Pretty good. I’m over California right now.”

“Get yourself over Texas.” “We’ll be in Texas in about three minutes.”

“Hurry it up… Be a good boy now, kid.”

During their mission, Mcdivitt and White ate freeze-dried food, reconstitu­ted by water, which gave them each 2,500 calories a day. Special provision was made for Mcdivitt, the first Roman Catholic in space, to eat fish on Friday.

Following the Gemini 4 flight, Mcdivitt and White became the first recipients of the newly establishe­d degree of Doctor of Astronauti­cs. Both were also awarded Nasa’s Distinguis­hed Service Medals and promoted to the rank of lieutenant­colonel.

For his service during the Korean War, Mcdivitt was awarded three DFCS, five Air Medals and the South Korean Order of Military Merit.

In March 1966 Mcdivitt was in charge of a simulated space ride by the Duke of Edinburgh, who was visiting the Manned Spacecraft Centre at Houston. Under Mcdivitt’s profession­al eye, the Duke took the controls of a mocked-up Gemini spacecraft to “rendezvous and dock” three times with a dummy Agena rocket.

Mcdivitt married, in 1956, Patricia Ann Haas, with whom he had two daughters and two sons. When his younger daughter was born in June 1966 she was said to be the first child to be conceived by the wife of an American astronaut following his return from space. The following year Mcdivitt presented models of Apollo and Gemini capsules to Pope Paul VI at St Peter’s in Rome.

Mcdivitt and Patricia divorced, and in 1985 he married Judith Odell.

 ?? ?? Mcdivitt: he was the first Roman Catholic in space, and Nasa made sure that he could eat freeze-dried fish on a Friday
Mcdivitt: he was the first Roman Catholic in space, and Nasa made sure that he could eat freeze-dried fish on a Friday

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